Author: Audrey Driscoll

Writer, gardener, lapsed cataloguer, and author of the Herbert West Series.

Dreams in Fiction

Everyone dreams, although not everyone remembers doing so. Dreams, therefore, are a common experience, so it’s inevitable that they turn up in fiction. Fictional dreams are, in fact, a literary device. They have also drawn the ire of rule-makers. Writers know they should never end a story by revealing that it was all a dream, or begin one with the character waking up from one.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use dreams in fiction. They can be useful in many ways.

  • Prophetic dreams can provide foreshadowing
  • Dreams can add symbolic elements
  • Nightmares can provide a jolt of horror and an element of backstory
  • Dreams can show something about a character they aren’t aware of
  • A dream can be a vehicle for something unlikely in reality (along with hints that maybe it wasn’t really a dream)
  • Hallucinations and visions are somewhat like dreams (or nightmares)

Deep into Draft 2.5 of my work in progress, I decided to change a particular scene into a dream. That let me dodge some awkward logic problems going forward and introduce bizarre details that (I think) enhance the reading experience without straining the suspension of disbelief. This got me thinking about the use of dreams in fiction. Every one of my novels includes dreams, from brief mentions to full and detailed accounts.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Not to set down rules (Me? Rules? Never!), but it occurs to me there are a few things to keep in mind about using dreams as elements in fiction.

  • Less is more. Unless a story is about dreams or dreaming, it’s probably best not to go overboard with them.
  • Dreams aren’t logical. Fictional dreams that are too detailed and realistic are obviously contrived.
  • Feel free to make fictional dreams bizarre and illogical. In fact, drawing upon your own actual dreams may be a good idea.
  • Think oblique. Hint rather than state. Instead of having a character remember a dream from start to finish, drop in flash memories of the dream as they go through their day. Vivid vignettes instead of technicolour dramas.
cemetery, gravestones
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you put dreams into your fiction? Or maybe something you’ve written was inspired by a dream. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Featured image from Pexels

What Readers Don’t Like, and Maybe Why

Readers of this blog must know by now that I can’t resist questioning anything that looks like a writing rule. I’ve read, and quibbled with, all kinds of “thou shalt nots,” from plot structure to specific words. The rationale is usually that these things alienate readers and make them stop reading a story, or prevent them from starting.

But here’s an idea: how about asking readers what they don’t like? That was the topic in a recent post on writer Pete Springer’s blog entitled My Pet Peeves as a Reader. All writers are also readers (or should be). A lot of writers read that post and commented. (By the way, the post also includes a lively discussion about sunflower seeds.)

As I read them, the top three peeves in Pete’s post and the comments are:

  • Rushed or otherwise unsatisfying endings
  • Wordiness, meaning either too much description or too many fancy/obscure words
  • Typos and errors

I wondered why these were the most often mentioned. Would this list be any different if the commenters weren’t mostly writers? I certainly don’t have any statistical data about this. The following are just my personal off-the-cuff thoughts.

  • Most people watch filmed stories of one sort or another; books have to compete with their instantaneous visual effects. Slowness is bad.
  • It takes more mental effort to read a book, i.e., to create a mind-movie, than to absorb a pre-made story, so books have to make that effort worthwhile with an ending that satisfies.
  • Writers spend a lot of time and effort finding typos and errors in their own works, so are likely to notice them in others’ writings. If there are enough of them to be irritating, that’s often a DNF.
  • So many books! Everyone’s TBR pile (physical or virtual) is bursting at the seams. This overabundance has lessened the differences between casual readers and professional ones (agents and editors), whose default approach to a piece of writing is rejection. “Give me a reason to keep reading this.” Such an outlook leads to a low tolerance for things like cliches, repetitiousness, and typos. Writers are especially apt to notice these imperfections because they are hyper-aware of them in their own writing.

Despite all this, the primary audience of many indie authors is other writers. Which is both a good thing and a bit ironic.

Writers, do you consider what your fellow writers might think of your work in progress? Do you modify your writing accordingly?

Featured image from Pexels

Last orange leaves of Cotinus cogyggria (smoke bush)

Finale

It’s been a rainy, windy fall so far here on Vancouver Island. We’ve had none of the crisp, sunny autumn days that are some of the year’s best. In fact, it feels like we skipped from summer (hot and dry) to winter (rainy and windy).

The garden is a mess. I haven’t managed to do any edge-trimming or much end-of-season cleanup. I’m not obsessive about raking up every leaf any more, since I’ve heard that fallen leaves are a valuable resource for bugs and birds. (Let’s hope the bugs aren’t the kind that cause problems for gardeners.)

But there are always a few things worth looking at…

Amanita muscaria mushroom
This Amanita muscaria mushroom popped up by the pond
Pink oriental lily, last lily of 2021
The last lily of the year. This is the first time I’ve had a lily bloom in November.
Yellow chrysanthemum flowers
The always reliable yellow chrysanthemum, not eaten by deer this time.

I see it’s raining again, so back to the work in progress!

pocket watch and book

Falling Back, Staying Put, or…?

Early this Sunday morning, clocks in most places in North America fell back by one hour, to Standard Time. (Okay, so a whole lot of smart phones jumped the gun, so to speak, a week early. Maybe courtesy of a Halloween gremlin?)

Falling back and springing forward has been happening for decades. The idea was to save energy. Or to lengthen summer evenings and not have the crack of dawn arrive at 4 a.m. Until recently, the change happened every 6 months, but “since 2007, in areas of Canada and the United States of America in which it is used, daylight saving time begins on the second Sunday of March and ends on the first Sunday of November.” (So says Wikipedia.)

As you read this, keep in mind that the tilt of the Earth relative to the Sun, and the consequent changes in day length in different places, is real and unchangeable (at least by us humans). Clock time, on the other hand, is a human construct. Until the past couple of centuries, humans managed their sleeping and waking by the sun. Now most of us are governed by clocks and artificial light.

For the past decade or so, there has been a lot of grumbling about the semiannual clock change, especially in spring, when suddenly you’re late or sleep deprived, or both. Serious proposals have been made to just stop this nonsense already. The province of British Columbia and a handful of US western states were working out a plan for permanent Daylight Saving Time just before the Covid pandemic began. The rationale was, we’re on DST for 8 months of the year already; why not just keep it year round? Like many other things, the plan was derailed by the virus.

One Canadian jurisdiction, the Yukon Territory, actually changed to permanent DST in 2020. I haven’t been able to find out how that went for people who live there, but a proposition for permanent DST was recently voted down by a narrow margin in the province of Alberta. This article addressed some of the pros and cons.

Recently, I’ve heard and read arguments against permanent DST and in favour of permanent Standard Time. Experts on sleep (not cats, but people who study sleep scientifically) say that year round DST would diverge too much from the natural sleep-wake cycle baked into our physiology. Especially in northern latitudes, sunrise in winter would happen as late as 10 a.m., which would mess us up as much as the twice a year clock change, only the effect would be of longer duration. So we’d experience more grumpiness, accidents, heart attacks, etc.

It seems that morning light has all kinds of benefits, both mental and physical. Forcing people to get up and out while their brain and body think they should still be asleep has bad effects such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and even obesity. Standard Time synchs clocks with sunrise better than Daylight Time would if the latter were maintained in winter. The later sunrises and lingering evenings of Daylight Time in summer are not shown to have those fundamental benefits.

These arguments do make sense to me, now that I’ve heard them expressed by different experts and thought about them for a while. To be truthful, the clock changes didn’t bother me that much when I was working, but then I’m lucky to have few problems getting to sleep and staying that way for at least 7 hours. And now that I’m retired, being on time isn’t as important. I lived in the province of Saskatchewan for twelve years (1980 to 1992), where permanent Standard Time is in place, with no plans to change, as far as I know. The only inconvenience there was figuring out what time it was in other places before making a phone call.

What do you think of the semiannual clock change? Are you okay with “Spring forward, fall back,” or do you want it done away with?

And here are a few garden sights from October…

Featured image from Pixabay

willow and other trees beside river

Thoughts on Cosmic Horror in Fiction

I recently re-listened to a program about H.P. Lovecraft. It prompted me to think about the element in his writing for which he is best known: cosmic horror as embodied by Cthulhu (who has become quite popular recently; you can even buy a cute Cthulhu stuffy).

But cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror–what is that? Keep in mind that HPL was an atheist and rationalist. He most definitely had no time for magic or godlike supernatural powers.

H._P._Lovecraft_in_DeLand_Florida,_June_1934
H.P. Lovecraft in 1934.
Lucius B. Truesdell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

HPL was inspired by the vastness of the known universe, and especially the not-known universe. The word vigintillion (meaning the number 1 followed by 63 zeroes) appears in a few of his stories. He was thrilled by the idea of the utter unknown, and how little humans (even educated, refined, white men of New England) matter in the grand scheme of things. The utter indifference of the cosmos to humanity is Lovecraft’s horror.

The beginning of his story “The Call of Cthulhu” pretty much sums up the idea:

double quotation mark open

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I can relate to this. At one time, I hoped to write a piece of fiction that could be called Lovecraftian, but I have never done so. Yes, my novel The Friendship of Mortals is based on Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” but it’s not cosmic horror in any sense. Come to that, the original story isn’t either. It precedes HPL’s exploration of that realm. Herbert West is an atypical Lovecraft character in that he has a smidge of personality, which was what inspired me to build a novel around him.

The reason none of my fiction can be called Lovecraftian is because it’s character-driven. It contains supernatural elements and even a bit of horror, but it’s really about what happens within and between the characters. To be honest, at times the supernatural stuff (revivified corpses, mysterious forces, and artifacts of power) is difficult to incorporate into the stories in a plausible way. True Lovecraftian fiction might be described as situationally-driven. The point of the story is a slow, gradual, apprehension of the situation by the character. Understanding is followed rapidly by terror.

In HPL’s stories, the point-of-view characters (they can’t really be called ‘protagonists’) are merely human vehicles to deliver the manifestations of inhuman, indifferent, monstrous entities to the reader. In no way are those stories about the characters. Yes, they have names, professions, family backgrounds and all that. But they are not struggling with relationships, bosses, addictions, or mental breakdowns (not until later, anyway). Their sole focus is whatever manifestation of cosmic horror HPL wants to show the reader. Even though I’ve read “The Call of Cthulhu” many times, I don’t remember the main character’s name. And that doesn’t even matter.

So what elements are needed in a story of Lovecraftian horror?

  • A main character with an orderly, unremarkable life without extremes or hazards, but who is alert and articulate. This person is a happy solitary, a single academic or similar. Not someone with a lot of people in their immediate surroundings. First person or close third person p.o.v.
  • A richly imagined setting. It could be almost anywhere, but should be realistic, to make its eventual wrongness seem, well, wrong.
  • A subtle and gradually increasing sense of wrongness in the surroundings.
  • An eventual sense of isolation of the narrator or p.o.v. character, brought about by the discovery of the cosmic horror.
  • A creeping sense of existential peril as a result of recognizing the cosmic horror.
  • The precise nature of the horror is never fully revealed (even when there are tentacles).
  • Destruction or madness of the p.o.v. character as the result of interaction with the cosmic horror. Note: there is no doubt that the character was sane at the beginning. This is not “unreliable narrator” territory.

A perfect example of this type of story is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a novella originally published in 1907, and so precedes Lovecraft’s stories by a couple of decades. In fact, HPL cites it in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature as one of the finest pieces of writing in that genre. “The Willows” has all the elements I have listed. The characters are two ordinary guys on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The narrator is unnamed, and his companion is referred to only as “the Swede.” The only conflict between them is about the significance of phenomena observed in their camp on a tiny island in the river, overgrown with willow bushes. The narrator believes he is more sensitive to subtle influences than the oblivious Swede. Gradually, he becomes aware this is not so. Trust me, the story is subtly terrifying, even without a tentacle in sight.

Before I put away my pen and computer for good, I still hope to write a truly Lovecraftian story. One day I’ll re-read this post and take a shot at doing just that.

(If they let me.)

Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.com

Featured image from Pexels

Book Review: Azalea Heights by Rajat Narula

This novel is set in Washington DC in 2015 or 2016, mainly in a new housing development called Azalea Heights. People are moving there intending to make fresh starts. There is an emphasis on newness, of the houses, the yards, and the neighbourhood. The characters include several immigrants from south Asia—some from India and others from Pakistan, as well as two white couples.

Naina is a recently divorced woman, originally from India, with a young son and a mother whose memory is failing. Gerard is recently retired from the US armed forces after being involved in the Iraq war; he has PTSD. The other white couple’s child drowned in their swimming pool; Kate is not dealing well with that. Altaf’s family is originally from Pakistan. His marriage is moribund and his son Zain is being radicalized by a cleric at the local mosque. Rohan is also from India, working hard to establish a restaurant. He is attracted to Naina.

Racial prejudice and religious extremism contribute to the plot. The characters are mostly realistic and fairly sympathetic. They are all dealing with life challenges of one sort or another—divorce, PTSD, grief, business challenges, the demands of parents, the troubles of children.

At times I thought there were too many characters; I found myself forgetting who was related to whom. The main characters—Naina, Rohan, and Altaf—are distinct and memorable. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the shifts from one to another are clear and not confusing.

The author is clearly familiar with south Asian culture and the immigrant experience and shows them vividly, occasionally including words and short phrases in Hindi and Urdu. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of Indian food and cooking.

In the first part of the book, each chapter presents one of the main characters and their situations. The pace is steady and the story at that point is mildly intriguing. Eventually, the characters’ lives begin to impinge on one another, in ways that are both hopeful and concerning. Tension definitely increases when a teenager goes missing. I found myself formulating a quite macabre explanation for this event, but at risk of spoilers, will say no more.

The book is realistic and includes descriptions of sexual situations. I thought one of them was unnecessarily detailed, considering its importance to the plot. Another was something of a surprise.

Once the story reaches a crisis point, tension is maintained and the book becomes a page-turner. The climax and resolution show both negative and positive aspects of American life as people overcome a variety of challenges and work together. The ending is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

I recommend this book to readers as a look into the lives of immigrants to the US and a different view of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

This review is based on an advance copy provided by the author.

Azalea Heights release date: October 26th
AMAZON

She Who Comes Forth book chapter heading with moon glyph

Chapters: Short, Long, Titled?

I must admit to a cavalier attitude toward chapter divisions. In several of my novels, I assigned them without much thought and didn’t bother giving them titles. Numbers were enough. When I started reading a lot of ebooks, though, I realized that chapter titles make it easier to navigate within an ebook, because they remind you of key incidents in case you need to go back and check a detail. The 19th century convention of providing a mini-synopsis of each chapter in the table of contents would be helpful for the ebook reader.

I used chapter titles in She Who Comes Forth and will do so in my current WIP.

I wrote She Who Comes Forth chapter by chapter, but while writing the first draft of my current WIP, I didn’t give chapters much thought. When I turned the handwritten manuscript into a Word document, I stuck in asterisks and blank lines between scenes, but I don’t want to have as many chapters as this would produce. Really short chapters may be right for some books, but not this one.

As I’ve worked through the first 40% of the second draft, I took a stab at adding chapter breaks. Both where the breaks happen and the chapter titles are subject to change. In fact, I really should have saved this task until the work as a whole was closer to completion.

It seems natural to insert a chapter break right after a conclusion of some sort, such as the end of a party, an outing, or an argument, at the point where something is figured out or resolved. With this approach, if you picture the plot of a story as a series of waves of different heights, chapters should end in the troughs.

The problem with this is that it may create a series of letdowns for readers. After a conclusive chapter ending, something new and intriguing is needed at the start of the next one to re-inflate the balloon of readers’ expectations. Readers are most likely to stop reading if a beginning isn’t compelling enough. Why would we want to create this sort of challenge for ourselves and our readers?

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Recently I read a piece of advice to the effect that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger, because we writers must assume that our readers are so fickle they must be tantalized into reading on, with the ultimate goal of a review that says, “This book is a total page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Which suggests that a chapter should end, and the next one begin, at the top of a wave.

For books other than thrillers, the term “cliffhanger” stretches to cover more situations than life-or-death physical perils. Maybe it’s better to suggest that each chapter ends with something intriguing, a question planted in the reader’s brain to ensure that they read the next one, and the next and the next. But distorting a perfectly good plot simply to engineer cliffhangers seems like a bad idea to me.

Photo by Cade Prior on Pexels.com

If the book isn’t a thriller full of perilous situations, the writer may wish to consider ending chapters at points where a question arises. What’s in the letter that just arrived? How will Character A react to the provocative comment by Character B? What will the characters do when their car breaks down during the outing? The idea is to end the chapter on the rising side of a trough, not at the bottom.

Instead of contriving cliffhanger-type situations, find them where they already exist in the work and place chapter endings there, in situations of questioning, uncertainty, revelation, and rising tension. Those should be there already, so why not make use of them?

A confession–as a reader, I don’t care much about chapters. I can stop reading anywhere, knowing the book will be there in a few minutes or the next day, and I can pick up where I left off. Once I’m committed to reading a book, I read to the end, even if I don’t find it enthralling. A book has to be abysmal (in my opinion) before I throw it on the DNF pile. Chapters with titles are useful, as I’ve already noted, but mainly as a way of labelling key events in the story for reference.

I wrote and scheduled this post a week ago. It’s entirely coincidental that THIS OTHER POST on the same topic, but with a different emphasis, appeared almost at the same time.

How do you deal with chapters? Carefully or casually? Numbers, titles, or both? And when you read, do you always read to the end of a chapter before stopping?

Featured image: A page from She Who Comes Forth, showing chapter title.

stripped-down room, renovations in progress

Revision Revisited

I’m at the stage of my work in progress that follows finishing the first draft. That draft was a 6-month sprint compared to the rewrite, which right now feels like it’s not even a marathon, but a journey.

Several months ago, I heard a talk by a writer and editor about the psychological state of the writer while revising a piece of writing. I will not name that person here because I’ll be mixing their ideas with my interpretations and extrapolations.

The talk began with a writer’s inherent resistance to revision. There are several reasons for it, but the ones I related to most were the fear that making changes to a piece of writing might unravel it entirely, and the fear of being overwhelmed by the possibilities for changes. The first is like pulling on a thread in a sweater, and the second like looking at a map with dozens of possible routes to a destination.

Then there are the words used to describe the process: revision, rewriting, editing. Let’s start with “editing.” As I see it used, it covers everything from major structural changes to proofreading, and therefore is often qualified, as in developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, stylistic editing, copyediting, etc.

Some writers say they edit as they write. This can mean only that they clean up their prose sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, correcting typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. Maybe they evaluate word choices and delete or add words or sentences. If you go back and read what you’ve just written, it’s impossible not to do this type of editing, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s definitely not revision or rewriting, which involves deleting or moving paragraphs or entire scenes, or writing fresh ones from scratch.

To me, revision and rewriting are pretty much the same, but when I look at the words, it makes sense that revision happens first. It’s re-envisioning the work, which then requires rewriting. One way of looking at it is that the writer must be freshly inspired by the work as written to shape it into its full potential. In other words, revision is a new beginning, rather than the conclusion of a writing project.

Elements of revision:

  • The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite
  • It’s necessary to identify the core essence of the story
  • It’s necessary to identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max
  • Strip the connective matter between those scenes to the bare minimum
  • Identify areas of weakness and take deliberate action to remedy them

To elaborate on each of these

The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite. It can’t be left up to the Editor and Inner Critic, who may convince the writer (of whom they are components) that the work is unimprovable, or that it’s perfect as it is and major rewriting will destroy it. At this stage the work is malleable, like unfired clay.

Identify the core essence of the story. This is done by reading it without getting sucked into making minor changes, which is hard to do. It may be helpful to set the manuscript aside for a week or longer before this read-through. This disengages the brain from the work and prevents it from supplying missing elements which would not be available to a reader who isn’t the writer.

Identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max. During that read-through, write down (with pen on paper) the most emotionally significant moment in each chapter or scene, and focus on perfecting it.

Strip connective matter between scenes to the bare minimum. This may be text that “sets up” a scene or describes characters moving from one place to another. While the writer needs to work out these details while creating the story, the reader doesn’t always need to see them.

Identify areas of weakness and act deliberately to remedy them. Description, dialogue, character motivation, conflict and tension, climax and resolution. Any of these may be problematic and in need of attention. An editor, critique partners, or beta readers may be helpful in calling attention to the problems. However, the writer should beware of taking action on any and all suggestions. Asking for feedback on specifics is more productive.

The goal is to produce a narrative that transcends the writer’s expectations and elicits an emotional reaction in the reader, even when the reader is also the writer. If, during the revision process, the writer gets bored with the story or tired of the characters, the story has not reached its burning essence.

That said, the writer must decide when it’s good enough. Only then is it time for what is usually called “editing”–looking for continuity problems, making the best word choices, and correcting grammar and spelling errors, and typos.

I’m a long way from that stage yet, because I’m in no rush. One thing I’ve learned is that when my attitude toward the work becomes mostly negative, it’s time to step away and do something else. I can’t find that burning essence when I’m physically tired or weighed down by everyday mental baggage.

Fellow writers, I’m sure you all have your own approaches to rewriting and editing. Feel free to share in the comments!

Image by Monica Silvestre from Pexels